The airport was insane. A line that loops back not twice, but four times, before heading up the stairs to customs. We had arrived in Iceland – four planes from the U.S. carrying tourists who were ready to reemerge from a really long year and a half without travel prepared to fall back in love with it.
Recently, Iceland has been rumored to be crowded with tourists even more than usual, since it became an early opener for vaccinated travelers. Because of the airport chaos and the rumors online about its mass influx of tourists, I was expecting the worst for the rest of the trip. I was ready to see crowds upon crowds, lines upon lines, and countless letdowns from tourist traps. I grumbled and thought “ugh, this is going to be so commercialized and flooded with people.”
To my pleasant surprise, Iceland offers a completely different experience than I was expecting – one that is even more special for the traveler roaming through the world for the first time since COVID hit.
Our trip centered on driving around the western and southern regions of Iceland. Once you venture outside of Reykjavík, you get to experience the Icelandic countryside that is unlike any other. It feels like another planet and a familiar sanctuary at the same time. We passed family farm after family farm and saw another car maybe every few miles. We stayed in guesthouses near these farms where the families themselves were working the front desk and cooking breakfast for us in the morning. They smiled, but were reserved; they kept to themselves and let us do the same.
I just felt a sense of a no-bullshit culture that I loved. The locals were so friendly and welcoming, but they didn’t waste time. They laughed at those of us trying to keep our hoods up and out of the rain (spoiler alert: it rains pretty much all the time and locals don’t even bother with rain jackets). They were proud of their country and its history in the most sincere way, but they didn’t make our experience cheesy and touristy. For instance, when we asked our bartender what the locals usually drink, she gave us a blank stare and replied, “we usually just go out for beers.” We got a similar answer on our food tour when we asked about how much fancy seafood and arctic char Icelanders eat, and our guide responded, “sometimes, but honestly, we mostly eat hot dogs.”
Of course, there are areas like the Blue Lagoon and the Golden Circle that are filled with tour buses – but when it comes down to it, you can find a perfect mix of easy tourist stops and off-the-beaten-path gems in Iceland that make you feel like you’re the only person there. For every one popular waterfall destination, you can stumble upon a hundred more that are naturally occurring and not even on the map. You can also find simple ways to do things budget-friendly to make the most of your visit.
My time in Iceland made me rediscover why travel is so special. For a country whose tourism drives its economy, they are doing something right by keeping the commercialization to a minimum while encouraging tourists to do their part to keep it that way. If you’re looking to fall back in love with travel, I recommend travel in Iceland. Explore this beautiful country and take in every bit of Icelandic magic you possibly can.